History free of politics

Print edition : November 10, 2017

RIGHT until his last days, Professor Satish Chandra illumined many a mind. A picture of modesty and generosity, he was always ready to share his knowledge and time with anybody who came calling. Earlier this year, when this correspondent called on him to consult him about the Mughal emperor Akbar for an article, he was heading for dialysis. Yet, he did not decline an appointment; he merely postponed it from late morning to afternoon.

An hour or so after the dialysis, he returned to his residence at Vasant Kunj in New Delhi. A lesser mortal would have decided to rest for a few hours, but not so Prof. Satish Chandra. He was ready for the interaction. Seated in a reclining chair with his hearing aid on, he presented a picture of a historian ready to engage with history; this was at the ripe old age of 95. The shelves in the room were stacked with books, his Medieval India: From Sultanate to the Mughals among them. Thick Persian carpet and curtains glistened under the slanting beam of the setting sun. A more poetic parallel with the life of the historian would have been hard to draw for the best of artists.

He did not mince words while reacting to volatile issues, such as the claim that Akbar actually lost the Battle of Chittor to Rana Pratap. He dismissed it with a wave of his hand and said: “There is no evidence anywhere to show that Rana Pratap won the Battle of Chittor. He is known for the valiant fight he put up. He was helped by the Bhils. All contemporary accounts show that the Rajputs were advancing in the battle, and believed that the Mughals would be defeated. But subsidiaries came for the Mughals in the nick of time and Rana Pratap’s elephant was shot by Akbar’s army.... You cannot look at history from the prism of Rajputs or Mughals. There was no monolith. For instance, Rana Pratap adopted guerilla warfare tactics, but the Rajputs in general did not adopt such methods in war. These tactics were later adopted by Shivaji.”

For more than an hour he talked passionately about the Mughals and said there was a sinister campaign to turn everything Mughal into foreign. He said: “The glamour of Rana Pratap lay in his valiant fight, in his bravery in defeat, not his victory. They are ruining it in their endeavour to make him victorious.”

Prof. Satish Chandra was frail; he could barely stand without support, and yet he did not bend to toe the politically convenient line. He did not lose any of his passion for justice and fair play. “They say the Mughals looted the wealth. If they did so, then where did they go? They all remained here. They ruled here, lost here, won here. They are buried here. They say Akbar was a foreigner. He was born in Amarkot, which was part of India. He was buried in Fatehpur Sikri. Akbar was as much Indian as you or me, or anybody else,” he said. Even as he spoke, he picked up a couple of books authored by him and pointed out the exact page and paragraph to buttress his contention. His memory was razor sharp, his scholarly skills undiminished.

This meeting was followed by another a couple of weeks later. (In the meantime, Prof Satish Chandra had made more trips to his doctor.) This time he spoke about why the Indus Valley civilisation should not be called the Sarasvati civilisation merely because traces of water had been found in Rajasthan. Linking the debate about the Indus Valley/Sarasvati civilisation to Hindutva politics, he said: “You cannot rewrite history that way. They are trying very hard to trace the boundary of the Sarasvati river to back up their claims. But they forget, and I reiterate it as a historian: Civilisations grew on the banks of small rivers, not big rivers. Traditionally, people did not use water from the river but from wells and baolis. The question of having a big river does not imply the existence of civilisation.”

Again the conversation continued for more than an hour. He talked about the Mughals, the Sultanate rulers and even the British. But, unlike other historians, he did not mention any of his books for reference on Sarasvati civilisation. “Irfan Habib has been writing on this aspect,” he said helpfully. A picture of modesty, he had only kind words for Bipan Chandra and Romila Thapar, two of his contemporaries from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) days. “The students used to respect him [Bipan Chandra]. They used to listen to him. His book on India’s independence can still be seen everywhere on the campus.” On Romila Thapar, he said: “She is writing. The other day, she gave a talk at IIC [India International Centre], but I do not know for how long will they allow her to talk. You see, they want to muzzle everything. It is important to speak, more so now than in the past.”

The two meetings with Prof. Satish Chandra in quick succession came after more than two decades. After the Mandal agitation rocked the country in 1990, this correspondent, who was then a student, had a brief interaction with him.

Then, like in 2017, he waved aside the controversy enveloping the student community. “It is all wreckage of the past,” is all one remembers him saying as he left in a hurry to catch a train. A few years later, while meeting him as a journalist when Delhi University, where he had taught, Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and JNU were rocked by a controversy over a book written by the historian Sumit Sarkar, Prof Satish Chandra refused to be party to the debate. He confined himself to saying: “There should not be politics in history!”

Indeed, there should be no politics in history, in its reproduction, in its narration. It should always be as it was, not as it would rather have been. It should be how Prof Satish Chandra wrote his book Medieval India, the National Centre for Educational Research (NCERT) textbook for Plus 2 students of the Central Board of Secondary Education.

Prof Satish Chandra founded JNU’s Centre for Historical Studies and was also the Vice Chairman of the University Grants Commission from 1976 to 1981. Not to forget his long association with AMU, where he served as a Reader until 1964. The university published his book Parties and Politics at the Mughal Court: 1707-1740. He presided over the Indian History Congress session in 1973.

Prof. Satish Chandra was associated with various universities—he also taught at Rajasthan University—and remained a fearless historian, always researching, always asking fresh questions. His was the major voice when it came to interpretation of medieval history. Prof. Irfan Habib observed at a condolence meeting for Prof. Satish Chandra: “In his works, Prof. Chandra insisted on a non-partisan secular approach to history, and his books and numerous papers bear testimony to his objective approach.”

Hailed as a pioneer in the study of Rajasthani historical documents, Prof. Satish Chandra was a rare academic: always open to debate, passionate about his ideology, but patient enough to hear a different viewpoint. He arrived on the academic scene at the right time, at a time when independent India, freed from colonial shackles, was beginning to interpret history. There was an attempt to take pride in India’s inclusive past.

Prof. Satish Chandra’s demise comes at a time when the Mughals could do with his interpretation of history.

Ziya Us Salam

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